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Who is the Boss of a Concerto? Bernstein on Gould’s Historic Brahms Performance

“This is gonna be different, folks. And it’s going to be very special. This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto.”

That April night in 1962, New York Philharmonic audiences had no idea they were about to witness a historic performance. Pianist Glenn Gould had reportedly made some discoveries in the Brahms concerto he was scheduled to play — discoveries that fundamentally changed everything about the concerto from the ground up, starting with the tempo.

See, Gould had stumbled upon a secret: when played very slowly, the first and second movements of Brahms’s D minor piano concerto (No. 1) were really “both aspects of the same movement.”

In Bernstein’s essay “The Truth About a Legend,” originally published in “Glenn Gould Variations – By Himself and His Friends,” he wrote:

I did forewarn the orchestra a little about this. I said, “Now, don’t give up, because this is a great man, whom we have to take very seriously.” There were some very odd looks when we began the rehearsal, but they were wonderfully cooperative and went right along with it. Of course, they did get tired: it was very tiring. After the rehearsal I asked him, “Are you sure you’re still convinced about the ‘slowth’ of this piece?” And he said, “Oh, more than ever; did you hear how wonderfully the tension built?”

Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. (Photo by Don Hunstein, 1957; Courtesy of Sony Classical)
Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. (Photo by Don Hunstein, 1957; Courtesy of Sony Classical)

And Bernstein kept that shockingly slow tempo for the concert later that week — breaking tradition in more ways than one.

While he usually saved in-concert remarks for Thursday Previews, Bernstein prepared the audience for the “unorthodox” tempo, encouraging them to listen to Gould’s performance in a “spirit of adventure”:

(Source: Bernstein remarks during the concert via an archived CBC Radio Special, April 25, 1962.)

The age old question remains: in a concerto, who is the boss: the soloist or conductor? … We can all learn something from this extraordinary artist who is a a thinking performer.

The papers and critics buzzed that there was a rift between the two. But, in truth, Bernstein and Gould were in sync:

Little did they know—though I believe I did say so to the audience—that I had done this with Glenn’s encouragement. …

It was very exciting. I never loved him more.

About this content

Glenn Gould/Leonard Bernstein/Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, Glenn Gould, piano; Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic. Released 1998.

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